Something strange is happening in Iran. Since June, fires or explosions have broken out in six factories and other facilities, including two of a military nature: the Parchin missile production plant and the Natanz nuclear site.
In Natanz, the Iranian government admitted, a fire severely damaged an “industrial hangar” where advanced centrifuges were built – machines that could have accelerated the process of building an atomic bomb. Satellite photos showed the hangar doors hanging from their hinges, blown outward. An official at the International Atomic Energy Agency said the damage had delayed Iran’s nuclear program by several months.
Is it Israel or the United States, or both, to blame? Iranians certainly think so, and Israeli officials do little to deter suspicion. Asked about by journalists, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz replied, “Not all incidents in Iran have anything to do with us,” leaving the possibility open to them. incidents may have. Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi went further: “Iran cannot be allowed to have nuclear capabilities,” he said, adding that, to anticipate this prospect, “we are taking steps that ‘it is better not to say’.
The explosions may have been triggered by cyberattacks, a much smaller version of the US-Israeli Stuxnet virus that manipulated the controls on the Natanz site in 2010, destroying thousands of centrifuges by slowing or speeding up their cycles. spinning – and doing so in a way that let Iranian scientists think the problems were caused by human error or faulty parts.
For this reason, some doubt that the latest explosions were cyber attacks. A former senior official at the National Security Agency, who helped design Stuxnet and other hacking tools, told me that most cyber attack programs are designed to make the damage that results from an accident look like – while the size and frequency of these latest attacks have the following characteristics: sabotage. It is also unusual for a cyber attack to trigger a huge explosion. On the other hand, another former official said that the fire at the Parchin missile factory – which had been caused by a gas explosion – could have been started by a cyber attack on the factory gas controls .
These former public servants, and others I interviewed, emphasized that they had no internal knowledge of what had happened. Some of the explosions could have been accidents; Iran’s track record in managing complex technologies is not remarkable. But some of them were almost certainly deliberate. On Friday, the Supreme National Security Council of Iran said that the cause of the Natanz fire had been “determined with precision”, but then did not provide any details.
If saboteurs were at work, it is at least as likely that they used old-fashioned methods – smuggling a bomb and exploding from a distance. The New York Times quoted a member of Iran’s elite military unit, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, as saying that the explosion in Natanz was caused by a bombshell – an astonishing confession of lax security in the the most expensive and sensitive nuclear facility in Iran. The Times also quoted a “Middle East intelligence official” as saying that Israel was responsible for the attack.
Again, BBC Persian reporter Jiyar Gol reported on Monday that just after midnight on June 30, he received an email from an unknown group calling himself the Homeland Cheetahs. The group – which claimed to be made up of dissidents in the Iranian military and security forces – said it had blown up a facility at the Natanz site two hours earlier. Gol went online to see if anyone was reporting such an explosion; He found nothing. Then, “several hours later,” the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization announced that there had been an incident at the Natanz plant.
Could the bombing have been an inside job? Is this a sign of deep cracks in the most reliable Iranian security forces? May be. Or, just as likely (if not more), Israeli forces want the Iranian regime to think so – partly to distract attention from themselves (and, possibly, deter a retaliatory attack), partly to foment distrust within high levels of the Iranian government and deepen existing cracks.
Tuesday’s Jerusalem Post quoted Raz Zimmt, an Iranian specialist at the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies, saying that the attacks – along with several other recent incidents and epidemics of neglect and vulnerability – have an impact on the Iranian public. These other incidents include the American drone attack that killed Iran’s most powerful military leader, Qassem Soleimani; an Israeli raid in 2018 that seized half a tonne of nuclear documents from archives in central Tehran; and the regime’s total incompetence in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, which killed more than 11,000 Iranians. “” The fingers point the finger at the regime which does not ensure the security of its citizens, “” said Zimmt.
Iran’s newly-elected parliament, heavily dominated by extremists, on Sunday heckled Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, accusing him of selling the country while negotiating the 2015 nuclear deal with the United States – agreement that US President Donald Trump has since revoked. , leading to the reimposition of economic sanctions which the agreement began to lift in exchange for the dismantling of the Iranian nuclear program. Parliamentarians on Monday called President Hassan Rouhani for harsh questions about the country’s many economic and security problems.
During the Sunday session, Zarif told lawmakers, “You should know that we are in the same boat. We are all in there. The United States does not recognize [the difference between Iranian] liberals, reformists and conservatives – revolutionary and non-revolutionary. ”
This is a point that the Trump administration and the Israeli government should absorb. If they are responsible for the fires and explosions of recent weeks, as part of their “maximum pressure” campaign to disrupt and destabilize the Iranian regime, they should know that the successors of Rouhani and Zarif are probably not young Westerners people who have sometimes demonstrated in the streets or dissident members of the Homeland Cheetahs (if such a group really exists). They are more likely to be the elite military and security forces themselves, whose long-standing distrust of the West has been heightened by Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal – and who, s ‘They are coming to power, will crack down harder on national dissensions and will push faster on a military accumulation against the United States and its allies.
Trump and his key advisers, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have long lobbied for regime change in Tehran. They have to be careful what they want.
Correction, July 7, 2020: this exhibit originally indicated that COVID-19 had killed more than 500,000 Iranians. He killed more than 11,000 Iranians.
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